Where Can I Buy a Cheap Used Car?

Even in today's overheated used-vehicle market, affordable cars are available. Here's how to find them.

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Hunting down cheap used cars is a way of life for me. From a $100 20-year-old Ford Explorer stuck in storage for nearly two years to a super-clean $500 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee that just needed a replacement title, I have found plenty of excellent inexpensive cars over the years.

Even in today’s market where deals are hard to come by, there are still cheap cars out there. Here’s how you can find them.

Start at Your Local Government Auctions

Govdeals, Public Surplus, AllSurplus, and GovPlanet offer government agencies — from local to federal — the opportunity to list their used vehicles. Contact your nearby county or city in order to preview their auction vehicles in person. Make sure to show up with a small jump-starter since many of these auction cars will have dead batteries.

Next, contact the appropriate government maintenance department so you can find out how these vehicles were maintained. Non-police vehicles, in particular, can be excellent cheap cars if you are willing to discover their history. Shopping at auctions held in counties and cities with higher-income buyers that invest in the maintenance of their used cars is also worth considering.

Not a Car Person? Hire an Expert and Shop the Dead Brands

As a cheap car addict, whenever I visit Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace I shop what I call the Five S’s — Saturn, Smart, Suzuki, Saab, and Scion — in addition to Mercury, Pontiac, and Isuzu. All of these “dead” brands are under the radar since there are no longer franchise dealers in the U.S. promoting their sale.

The lack of current advertising for these brands means less public awareness. These vehicles may be less expensive than popular cars from existing brands such as Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota, Honda, or Hyundai. Make sure to get the vehicle inspected by a professional mechanic. Not every cheap car is a good car.

Go Low Tech With the Senior Set

Also important: If you need A-to-B transportation, advertise your needs on a community bulletin board at the local senior center to reach those who often avoid the online world. Your mechanic might also know of a good car with an older owner ready to retire from driving.

Sometimes a Cheap Car Isn't So Cheap

One final caveat regarding finding a cheap used car: Don’t get entranced by a lowball price.

Look for vehicles that have a history of longevity, reliability, and a complete service and ownership history. The cheapest car you can buy is the one worth keeping. It helps to be patient, seek out expert advice, and enjoy the hunt.

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Steven Lang
Steven Lang is a special contributor to Capital One with nearly two decades of experience as an auto auctioneer, car dealer, and part owner of an auto auction. Some of the best-known auto publications turn to him for his expert insight. He is also the co-developer of the Long-Term Quality Index, a survey of vehicle reliability featuring over two million vehicles that have been inspected by professional mechanics.